Sunday, June 9, 2013

Ho Chi Minh Trail: The Journey

 5.11 crux, 19 pitches (7 of which are 5.10), with an R rating. Back in late 2011 I saw DNB in “Yosemite Valley Free Climbs” and it seemed like an unattainable goal - back than I was not confident to lead 5.8s and even had trouble bouldering v1s in the gym. However, I thought this climb took one of the most aesthetic lines I have seen, and set a life goal to free climb this buttress.
Approximate line of Ho Chi Minh Trail

Clint Cummins' outline of the route:
Higher, Middle, and Lower Cathedrals
On June 1st 2013 I was racking up at the base. After discovering other guide books outside of supertopo I picked ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ as a route I preferred to take up North Buttress. Not only does it follow the buttress closer to the crest, but appeared much more sustained on topo. It follows DNB for 6 pitches (which contain four out of seven 5.10 pitches and DNB's 5.11a crux, according to supertopo), and splits off right adding 6 more pitches of 5.10 and 6 pitches of 5.8 or harder.
Views from a run up glacier point - good way to lose weight
Toulumne is a nice place to work on improving skills

Book of Job (III 5.10b), another 5/5 star climb
Onsighting Outer Limits (5.10c)
Leading Pratt's Crack (Pine Creek)
V 8 crack (5.10d next to Cardinal Pinnacle)
For me this climb was really special and I put a lot of energy trying to prepare myself physically, and mentally for this challenge. To prepare myself physically I lost 25 lbs since 2011, and spent countless hours working on my skills in the gym. Not because I was training for this particular route, but because I fell in love with rock climbing in general. Even though far from being talented naturally, I climbed close to a 1000 pitches outdoors (including rock, ice and aid) since mid 2011 and it helped a lot. In a few months prior to ‘sacking up’ I put more focus on long climbs, or linking up multiple routes sustained in 5.9-5.10 range. For example, climbing on Cardinal Pinnacle was a great way to get ready. Crack Kingdom, West Face, V8 crack, and Cucumbers are all routes of high quality with a lot of 5.10 on them. To work on my ‘lead head’ (and this one is important on this climb) I decided to free solo a few low 5th class routes in Sierra a week prior. SE Face of Emerson (in 4 hours car to car) and a fun adventure on Lauren mountain (deserves own TR) were good scrambles which helped me accept the fact that roped climbing is a lot less risky, even 20 ft above your pro.
For a 'successful' climb having the right partner can be as important as training. Since Gleb and I shared an adventure on Middle Cathedral just a month prior and he was able to keep his humor through that climb, I thought he would be a perfect match. Since our climbing abilities are very similar there would be no 'rope gun,' and I would have no 'stronger shoulder' to depend on in case I start getting lazy.
Reflection of Laurel Mountain in Convict Lake
Start of some cool Arete I found on Laurel
Knife-edge ridge on Laurel
View from Emerson
Alex Honnold's entry on Emerson
SE Face of Emerson leads to a cool knife-edge ridge 
We got to the base and got started by about 6:40am. It was our first mistake since there was enough daylight to begin an hour earlier. Multiple people claim that first pitch of DNB is the most sand-bagged 5.7 in the Valley and wanted to give it a go. Gleb did not have any objections and I jumped head first into the squeeze. It had a nice hand crack in the back and allowed for straight forward heel-toes for a good part of it. If 5.9 squeeze chimneys are not your friends this one could appear sand-bagged, but with decent technique it felt secure and I did not find a move much harder than a 5.7. Gleb took the second pitch which had a few different variations and was really chill and enjoyable - probably one of two pitches (out of 20) that felt easy.

First Pitch goes up inside that flake on the right. 

Familiar but still stunning
Gleb following first pitch
fixed lulz
5.7 start to pitch 3
Gleb following the crux (5.11a)
Next up was my lead of the crux - 3rd pitch. It starts from a lie backing, than you clip a few pins and make a few strenuous and not well protected mantles before you reach a secure. Prospect of a pendulum fall back into that corner makes your palms sweat, but a 5.8-9 rating gave me enough hope that I could do it. Thank god the crux mantle is protected so well that I didn't even worry about falling. What made my fingers sweat here is direct heat from the sun. The one and only tiny sloper hold I had to work with was so slippery that I spent what seemed like an eternity trying to figure out a way to stick to it. At the same time my right foot was stretched up to level of my chest on a solid hold. What I ended up doing felt more like a one leg squat, rather than a mantle. I barely made it, but I did, which led to a loud scream of joy, and a loss of concentration. I clipped the second bolt and failed to give the next few moves respect they deserve. They did not look tough, but somehow I was close to blowing it. I regained my concentration quick and and made it to the damn anchor - mission accomplished! And just 17 more pitches to go! 
Gleb leading 4th pitch
Sea of good rock
Looking up pitch 5. It goes up and right, than traverses back left under a roof
Gleb following pitch 5
Fourth pitch had clean traversing face climbing with pendulum fall potential for leader and follower alike. After sending the crux, my reward was to follow this thing with a follower's pack - not fun. Both of us made it and were faced with another cruxy pitch - 5th. For this pitch Supertopo suggests 5.10d 'no pro' , but since we brought a topo from Reed's guide I wasn't worried - '5.9 with a fixed piton.' No biggie. This was one of the coolest pitches of the climb. It started with a traverse right and REALLY cool edging into a crack that gradually thins out into nothing. Fixed pin gives you enough pro to make a few desperate moves and regain your balance at the roof. It looks highly improbable, but great holds and pro allow for a secure, but cruxy exit to another belay ledge. I was psyched about leading this pitch clean. When Gleb got up to our belay ledge I handed off the rack, and reminded him that we have only 15 pitches and 1L of water left!
Gleb getting to the crux roof on pitch 6
Gleb following pitch 8 (5.10c)
Some place when climbing was still fun
This is possibly the best spot to view of El Cap 
His next pitch started from a thin crack through a roof (crux) and continued up through more enjoyable climbing. He linked 6th and 7th. By this time I was cussing my original choice to lead odds - I had another 5.10c pitch up ahead. It started from easy face climbing it traversed left on a ledge system and offered a crux which was short and not very strenuous. Key here was precise foot work and inching my way up towards a life saving hold. Crux is protected well by a few pins and than a bolt protects another cruxy mantle above. Even though it wasn't close to being as hard as crux on 3rd, this mantle wasn't a easy. Gleb linked pitches 9 (5.8) and 10 (5.10a) into a rope stretcher. Climbing here was really enjoyable. Not too easy, but never desperate. I liked this pitch a lot. 

Looking down pitch 13 (5.10c) before continuing up 5.5 ramp
Rock is good, exposure is stellar.

Gleb leading 'double cracks' pitch (14th - 5.9)
Looking down the wide groove on pitch 15 (5.8)
Gleb: "FML, do we really have another 5 pitches to go???"
Gleb starting up pitch 16 (way we took was way harder than 5.8)
Next two pitches were adventurous. I led 11th pitch which had improbable looking roof that went at 5.10a, and Gleb was able to figure out where to traverse on pitch 12 – not at all obvious at first. What I found surprising is how sustained, well protected, and fun the climbing was. The route wasn’t dirty neither. On pitch 13 I climbed up a crack, did a few cool lie backs and decided to transition into a OW/squeeze chimney. It was well protected, and looked much more solid than thin flakes to my right. This pitch traverses left and ends on top of a big block in a corner. Gleb took pitch 14 which looks improbable from the bottom. I did not see double cracks, or even a single continuous one, but they were really there. Both of us liked this pitch. Pitch 15 had a runout traverse right and involved me grabbing a tree to advance past it. Branch I was able to reach felt pretty dead and I thought it would really suck if it broke, but it didn’t. I continued this pitch by taking a wide crack straight up to a notch between the wall and Turret spire. I wished I had a #4, or at least a #3 here. Wide crack was kind of long, and my biggest cam was a yellow BD. Thank god climbing never got hard.
Me leading the last 5.10c of the climb (17th)
Looking up the last 5.10 pitch of the day. Starts with a great hand crack
Me following pitch 18 (5.10b). Exposure here is beautiful.
A scorpion we saw in a descent gully 
After 15th pitch we were only 5 pitches from the top, but felt beat. Bringing 1L of water each was not a good decision on a warm day. We took a break, ate, and drank a few sips of water. 16th pitch was supposed to be easy (5.8), but Gleb took a wrong crack system (or I failed to transition to a different crack system lower on pitch 14?) and the crux felt as hard as any 5.10b/c pitch. It was a step left across the arête. Making these moves felt desperate and I was happy to get it clean, even on TR. Next pitch (17th) had the last 5.10c crux. Feeling dehydrated, I was prepared to go into full aid mode, or taking a whipper. Fortunately, after getting past the first 5.9 section I found really fun climbing. There were a few lie backs, and incredible jams to traverse under a roof. 5.10c crux had bomber finger jams and protected really well too. After a few big moves I made it to a good jug, and on to a belay stance. I was stoked to get through it. When Gleb joined me on the belay ledge he looked like me prior to my lead – like he was going to a funeral. He had to lead another 5.10b pitch. After a short rest he got going and had no trouble sending pitch 18 in good style. We traded our rack two more times, got through some interesting route finding, and finally topped the route. Twenty pitches later we stood next to “Thirsty Spire.” Both of us were so thirsty that neither of us got the wit. It hit me a day later as a sipped fluids from a gallon jug. Also, after Gleb recognized  I did't fall or hung at any point on route I realized that I completed one of my life goals  onsight, to my surprise. 

Ho Chi Minh trail takes the sun/shade line up Middle Cathedral. 2000ft of free climbing
To accept the challenge with my current skill set I decided to avoid viewing supertopo’s outline for first 6 pitches of DNB. It is a good thing I did. Comparing topos now I think I would have trouble finding a good reason to lead pitch 3 - ‘5.10a awkward, 5.9 mantel reachy, 5.8 mantle no pro, 5.11’….ummmm sounds alarmingOn the other hand, Reed guide makes it sound like nothing unusual - 5.7 lie back, 5.10b’ - much more manageable! My favorite though is description for pitch 5. What is ‘5.9, 5.10a step left, 5.10d, no pro, 5.10c’ in supertopo, is ‘5.9 fixed piton’ in Reed’s – cakewalk! In reality, I thought the truth is somewhere in the middle and if you want you can read what I thought about the ratings bellow:
Pitch 1) 5.7-8 squeeze chimney. So secure that it doesn’t need much protection (I placed about 4 pieces), but protects very well. In addition there is a hand crack in the back of this chimney. At 5.7 people call it the biggest sand bag. I thought it is a fair rating since it is a secure squeeze, and less than vertical too. It is physical, but not difficult.
Pitch 2) 5.7-many options. Really fun pitch with good protection all the way.
Pitch 3) 5.7 lie back to a balancy move left. Protects well with pitons. Next mantle felt 5.9ish and had a potential for a pendulum fall. Next mantle was easy but had a potential for a very big fall if you blow it. Mantle move seemed like 5.10d-5.11a, very well protected.
Pitch 4) Enjoyable, clean face climbing left was 5.9ish. Protects reasonably well than you climb up a crack and traverse right. Also felt 5.8-5.9ish but had a potential for a long fall, especially for follower.
Pitch 5) Would give it a 5.10c and thought it protects well. Some really cool and easy edging in the beginning. Crux for me was when crack thins out. There was another cruxy move to traverse towards a belay station – protects really well.
Pitch 6/7) 5.10a (Supertopo gives it 5.10c and Reed gives it 5.9) at the roof with lots of enjoyable and easier climbing past. We combined pitch 6 and 7 here.
Pitch 8) One well protected 5.10c move, followed by a bolt and another mantle that felt like a 5.10-. Cool pitch.
Pitch 9/10) We linked pitch 9 and 10. 10th had a bolt protected crux face move – 5.10a.
Pitch 11) Improbable looking roof/headwall goes at 5.10a. Really cool roof. Protects well.
Pitch 12) Really cool, once you figure out where exactly to traverse. Which could take a while. 5.9, protects semi ok, but with a potential for a long swinging fall if you blow it.
Pitch 13) Some lie backing and a cool squeeze chimney/OW. Felt 5.9-10a and protected well. Last part of this pitch is a ramp system going left into a corner. Belay on top of a block where you can have a sit.
Pitch 14) Double cracks, that do not look like double cracks at all from the bottom. 5.9 and well protected. Fun climbing straight up towards a tree.
Pitch 15) Traverse right is not well protected, but not hard. Grab some branch that feels semi dead and pray it doesn’t break. Climb up a wide crack into a notch with Turret (spire). #3 and #4 would be nice to have in that wide crack. I only had 1 #2 though. This pitch is about 5.8.
Pitch 16) I believe we messed up on route finding here. We climbed a crack straight from the notch. It turned into a 5.9ish lie back for a few moves, than you get to a stance. The tree is above and to the left and you have to step around the arête here. Where we got around it felt as hard as any 5.10b/c crux from earlier. Once you make the moves around the arête the climbing is easy.
Pitch 17) Not excited at all for another 5.10c pitch. Tired, thirsty, but almost there. 5.9 section down low felt difficult, but very well protected. 5.10c crux above did not feel as hard as I imagined, probably because it is short. Awesome pitch. Hand jams in the roof were bomber. Loved it.
Pitch 18) Cool hand crack to a roof with a few moves to traverse right. We thought it felt like 5.10a and protected well.
Pitch 19) Many options exist here. What I climbed here felt 5.9ish, got around the corner and into a splitter OW. OW went at 5.7-8 with good heel-toe and other holds all the way up. Good pro.
Pitch 20) 5.7 hand crack leads to the top of the climb. By this point we were really happy to be done but didn’t quite find a way to end up on Kat Walk. It got semi-dark and up and right. We did some simul climbing and belayed a pitch ending our climb on the last pitch of North Buttress route. It helped a lot that we climbed the North Buttress prior, and were familiar with Kat Walk descent. It would really suck to be there for our first time in the dark.
Post climb feast!  THE reason why I climb. :)
Gear: Had doubles from green alien (red c3, or blue mastercam) size to BD #3. Worked very well. Also had a blue/purple metolious offset which I placed a few times. I remember it being helpful on pitch 5. There are some PG13 spots, and traverses where falling would result in a nasty pendulum fall. But those should not be a problem for 5.9-10 leaders. Most of the traverses are not difficult.

Thoughts: This was the best long multi-pitch route I have ever done. Better than Beckey-Choinard in my honest opinion. Any 5.10 leader who enjoys mixed (crack/chimney/face) climbing and long routes should put Ho Chi Minh Trail on their short list. There is really nothing else that a climber can ask for from this route. It is mostly clean, has sustained climbing of high quality, takes a beautiful line, and has great views. Only thing it lacks is topping out on a spire-like summit. In any case it deserves 10/10 stars!

Thanks for reading...


  1. Great job Vitaly. 1000 pitches since 2011!? Wow dude. I've only done like 400 pitches since then. You racked up some crazy mileage.

    1. I wonder how many pitches I climbed in the gym!? :)

  2. Great job man! Can't believe you're claiming the FA on this like you did with Moonage Daydream on MP. Shet!

    1. Yes, as usual. More ridiculous claims=fame!

  3. Your picture of The Nose is unbelievably good.

  4. OK, now that I finished reading the actual TR: congratulations on doing this! Doing DNB or something up the front of Middle Cathedral seemed like it really captured your imagination. Kind of like how I always wanted to do Positive Vibes but was unsure if I would ever be ready. Interesting observation on how a bit of scary beta might be off-putting...